The history of games and martial conflict are indelibly linked. In war, each decision a combatant makes can have lethal results. This is true for every rank of soldier, from the lowliest grunt deciding where to stick his sword to the highest commander guiding troop movements across continents. The stakes are high: You either take the hill or die in the attempt. The same scenarios occur in wargames, but on a much smaller scale. War is hell, yes – but it sure is fun.
Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have played games which simulate the dramatic tension inherent in war. Game pieces meticulously carved from wood, bone and stone were found in Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 3500 B.C.E. Several ancient Egyptian games have been discovered, including Senet, Mehen and Hounds and Jackals, but their papyrus rule manuals (if they existed) sadly did not survive. Even so, it’s clear in the game of Senet that the pieces represented men or military units and were placed on a finite grid that corresponded to a battleground. It’s amazing that over five millennia ago, men were playing games which bear a striking resemblance to what is being played at your local gaming store.
Just as remarkable is that the only reason the evidence of these games remains is because they held religious significance to the Egyptians, who placed the game boards in the tombs of their pharaohs. For a people obsessed with predetermination, any player who could predominantly win at a game was deemed blessed by the gods. Some sources even suggest the Egyptians may have believed the departed played Senet in the afterlife, which explains why they left game boards with the dead in their tombs.
Another family of games which earned a place in legends and stories were the Tafl games. Believed to have been played since around 400 C.E, Tafl was spread by the Vikings throughout Europe, leading to many regional variants of the same basic game. As with the Egyptian games, no clear rulebook for Tafl has survived, but archaeologists have been able to deduce its basic gameplay from old manuscripts and the remains of game pieces and boards. All Tafl games depict a specific battle situation: the defense of a king or chieftain under attack by a force with superior numbers. The attacker’s objective is to capture the king by surrounding him on four sides, while the defender must try to escape by finding a clear route to the edge of the game board. This simple setup led to surprisingly complex strategies and moments of extreme tension.
Like Senet, Tafl wasn’t just played for amusement. The Celtic variant of the game, called Fidchell, had religious significance as well. The game was said to be invented by Lugh, the Celtic god of light, and skillfully played by his son, the warrior Cú Chulainn. In the stories, Fidchell held powers of divinity, with great battles hinging on the results of a match. The game had such a prominent place in Irish culture that the word “fidchell” eventually evolved into “ficheall,” the Gaelic word for chess.
The chess we know and play today, however, did not spread into Europe until around the 12th century, and its origins couldn’t be further from games like Tafl. Chess originated in the Gupta dynasty in India around 600 C.E. The earliest form was called chaturanga, which translates roughly to “four divisions.” The game’s chief innovation was its four unique unit types that roughly corresponded to those of the Indian army: infantry (pawns), cavalry (knights), elephantry (bishops) and chariotry (rooks). After spreading to Persia in the 7th century, where it developed the predecessor to the “check” and “checkmate” exclamations, chess slowly spread throughout Asia and Europe over the next 700 years.
Chess’ distinct unit types weren’t just the only influence that real warfare had on the game. The top-down commander view of two opposing armies arrayed on a field was particularly representative of how battles were fought in medieval Europe, when chess reached its peak in popularity amongst the upper class and military leaders. (It’s possible, though hardly provable, that military conventions of the age were influenced by chess.) Likewise, the game mimics real warfare in more subtle ways: In both arenas, an unexpected move that defied convention or perceived wisdom often won the day for the risk-taking general. A player placing his queen at risk of capture to open up his opponent’s line of pawns may seem foolish, but his heart is surely pounding, hoping against hope that his opponent will take the bait and expose his flank. It’s moments like these when chess feels vital and real.
The continued popularity of chess is arguably the primary reason that so many war games are played today. But the game’s characteristic elegance came slowly, and its many rule revisions read like the patch notes of history. For example, the queen was once a fairly weak piece, only able to move diagonally one square at a time. It wasn’t until around 1475 C.E. that she gained the ability to move two whole squares. Some revisions were regional: Turkey and Russia, for example, experimented with allowing the queen to jump over other pieces once per game, an ability only the knight possesses in the modern game. Other rule changes had unintended side-effects, as when pawns were allowed to advance two squares in their first move in an effort to speed up the start of a game. That eventually necessitated the en passant rule to prohibit pawns from passing the opponent’s pawns without assistance.
But as well designed a game as chess is, in some ways it stifled the growth of wargaming. The eight-by-eight board is abstract, and most game designers were only successful in creating chess variants by adding more pieces or squares. It wasn’t until 1811 that a breakthrough was made by Baron von Reisswitz of Prussia. He wondered what it would be like to plan strategic moves on a realistic map of actual terrain with a defined scale for troop size and movement. He sketched out a system, using 1:2373 scale – roughly three centimeters for every 100 paces – and went to work deconstructing the experience of warfare and reassembling it in miniature.
Perhaps the most striking advancement von Reisswitz made was his representation of the fog of war – the concept that opposing troop movements weren’t always visible to a commander. He emulated this by introducing an umpire, an independent third party who received orders from the two generals and handled all troop movements on the map according to the rules. By using a neutral mediator, the game was able to accurately simulate how an actual battle would progress, including rules for surprise, artillery cover and line of sight.
Von Reisswitz called his creation Kriegsspiel, the German word for “wargame.” The Baron played it with a few friends and his son, but did not bother publishing what he considered a simple pastime. In fact, for all its genius, Kriegsspiel might never have been known today if it wasn’t for royal intervention. The sons of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia were cadets at the Berlin Military Academy when their lecturer happened to mention that a civilian had created a wargame. The princes were intrigued and insisted on a demonstration of Kriegsspiel. They were so impressed that they asked von Reisswitz to show their father. In turn, the King became such a fan of Kriegsspiel that for years he would play late into the night, leaving the battle in place only to resume it the next evening.
In the meantime, Von Reisswitz’s son, a member of the military, started his own gaming group and revised and improved the rules his father originally wrote. Prince Wilhelm heard of the younger von Reisswitz’s new version and asked him to show it to Karl Freiherr von Müffling, Chief of the Prussian General Staff. Von Müffling was so enthusiastic about the game that he ordered a copy of kriegspiel for each regiment of the army and encouraged all ranks to play it in order to understand the complexities of commanding an army. That decision likely paid off: Some scholars suggest that Kriegsspiel’s popularity among Prussian officers in the 19th century was one of the main factors in their victory over a much larger and fully professional French army in the Franco-Prussian War. It wasn’t long before other militaries became interested in wargaming, directly copying von Reisswitz’s creation or developing their own systems.
While warmongers continue to recognize wargames, both tabletop and electronic, as a means to train new commanders and innovate new tactics, the civilian consumer of today is inundated with videogames set in the theater of war. Real-time strategy games, a genre impossible to represent without computers, are now ubiquitous, and first-person shooters that encourage quick tactical decisions while under fire continue where fidchell and Kriegsspiel left off. In fact, every wargame throughout history, from chess to Call of Duty, simulates the same basic experience: one where the decisions players make are the difference between victory and death.
Greg Tito plays all games and occasionally writes about them.